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Sydney Engelberg PhD

Travels in Vietnam and Cambodia and a Lesson in Resilience

Not depressing or horrible, Vietnam and Cambodia taught me a lesson in life

August. Vacation time. Those long, lazy days of summer. A time to relax. A time to think of beaches, barbecues and cold beers sipped slowly.

Source: Fredi Siskind Engelberg

But my August has been different. As a result of an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Indonesia, I also spent time in Vietnam and Cambodia and in Vietnam was invited to speak at a number of different venues.

I doubt that anyone needs to be reminded of the recent history of these two countries. Cambodia is still trying to recover from the devastation and trauma of Pol Phot, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields, where as many as 3 million out of a population of 8 million were murdered.

Vietnam is celebrating 40 years since the end of the war in 1975, and 70 years since the start of their war against the French that developed into the war against America. While no accurate figures are available, some estimates suggest that as many as 3 million Vietnamese may have lost their lives in the 30 years of war from 1945 to 1975.

At this point, you may be shaking your head and saying, “How depressing, how horrible!” Well, that would be a big mistake. Cambodia, which used to celebrate what the National Day of Hatred or Day of Maintaining Rage, now commemorates what was renamed in 2001 as a Day of Remembrance. And Vietnam welcomes French and American tourists. Not once did I encounter bitterness or a desire for revenge or any expression of, “they're the enemy.”

In both countries you hear only expressions of hope, of optimism of opportunities to develop. So rather than being depressed and horrified, one feels uplifted and positive and, of course, experiences some important lessons about psychological resilience.

I would like to highlight three, all grounded in the research of the past 20 years:

1) Minimizing catastrophic thinking and challenging counter-productive beliefs. We know that one of our most fundamental and important mental functions is how we frame our daily experiences. Do we see the glass as half full or as half empty? We can control our psychological framing to an extent and so when the Cambodians choose to have a Day of Remembrance rather than a Day of Rage they choose not to be helpless but to take control over their future.

2) Problem solving. In both Vietnam and Cambodia it is difficult to have a conversation without at some point hearing or being asked about innovation and creativity. Everyone wants to learn better ways of doing things and of solving problems. For example, the slogan of FPT University in Hanoi, where I was invited to speak, is “Dream of Innovation.” It reflects the general spirit and attitude. This problem solving orientation once again demonstrates that no matter how difficult the circumstances, a proactive approach helps develop personal resources and positive coping mechanisms.

3) Strengthening relationships. I have written in previous blogs about the importance of social networks and social support. Traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia exposes one to societies where family and social relationships are still the bedrock of personal and community life. Let me illustrate this with a personal story. After giving my talk at FPT University in Hanoi, I was taken out for dinner. We ate, we drank, we spoke about family. At the end of the meal my hosts, before parting, said, “Now you are family, now we can see how to maintain and develop our relationship.” The formal academic connection was far less important than the personal relationships cemented over the meal.

So after all the psychology, maybe Kierkegaard — a philosopher — summed it up best, “Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living.”

About the Author

Sydney Engelberg, Ph.D., who has worked on four continents, is on the faculty of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Ono Academic College.

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